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Airlines and F.A.A. Try to Head Off Summer Travel Meltdowns

Airlines and F.A.A. Try to Head Off Summer Travel Meltdowns

The number of Americans who will fly this summer could eclipse the prepandemic high from 2019. That would be great news for airlines, but it could also cause a backlash against the industry if it fails to keep up with demand and delays or cancels thousands of flights.

The recovery from the pandemic has been punctuated by several major travel meltdowns, stranding millions of travelers and angering lawmakers and regulators. In recent months, the Transportation Department has proposed requiring greater transparency around airline fees and requiring companies to more fully compensate people whose flights are delayed or canceled.

A major misstep could increase political pressure on lawmakers and regulators to take a harder line against airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, which directs air traffic and has also had notable failures in recent years.

“I don’t think they can afford to have a summer like they did last year,” said William J. McGee, a senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, a research and advocacy group that has criticized consolidation in the airline business. “This pattern they had last year of canceling flights at the last minute, in many cases due to crew shortages, that’s just unacceptable. They’re not going to be able to do that again, I don’t think, not without some serious repercussions.”

Industry executives and F.A.A. officials say they made changes after recent disruptions and meltdowns that should make air travel less chaotic and more pleasant this summer than in recent years.

Nearly every major airline and the air traffic control system have suffered a meltdown at some point during the recovery from the pandemic.

Early on, when coronavirus vaccinations were still being developed and tested and restrictions prevented people from traveling, carriers encouraged thousands of employees to take buyouts or retire early even though the federal government had provided airlines with billions of dollars to pay employee salaries. When air travel quickly rebounded, airlines, like every other business, struggled to hire and train employees, including pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers.

Even when companies got a hold on hiring, airlines remained particularly susceptible to disruptions. During the holidays leading into 2022, a resurgent coronavirus sickened huge numbers of crew members, compounding problems caused by bad weather and resulting in thousands of flight…

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